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U.S. eyes overseas airports for missile threats

From Jeanne Meserve

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The U.S. is evaluating overseas airports to see how vulnerable they are to shoulder-fired missile attacks -- and looking to develop anti-missile technology for commercial airliners.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Department of Homeland Security is evaluating about a dozen overseas airports to determine their vulnerability to attacks with shoulder-fired missiles.

A failed attempt in November to shoot down a chartered Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, with a shoulder-fired missile underscored the vulnerability of airliners. The attempt occurred within minutes of a suicide bombing at a nearby Israeli-owned hotel that killed more than a dozen people.

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for that attack.

"There is no intelligence that there are al Qaeda cells actively planning or in the execution phase to carry out some sort of attack" in the United States or overseas, a department official said Thursday, adding that the Kenyan incident was "a wake-up call."

A department spokesman said aviation security teams sent out to the airports are "mapping topography and vulnerabilities" to see what security measures might be implemented. These additional measures may include increased surveillance, fencing and patrols, the spokesman said.

However, experts say those perimeter measures are of limited use because of the capability of the missiles.

"These things are effective up to several thousand feet in altitude and you know the angles at which aircraft approach runways is pretty shallow so they would be within effective range of these things for several miles before touchdown and for several miles after takeoff," said David Ochmanek of the RAND Corp. think tank.

And during takeoffs and landings, planes often fly over densely populated areas where a shoulder-fired missile could be hidden, Ochmanek added.

Assessments have been completed at airports in Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; and Manila, Philippines, and new security steps have been taken there, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Experts are also looking at Iraqi airports in Baghdad and Basra.

Department officials declined to reveal what other countries are involved but said they were nations where U.S.-based carriers make frequent flights and countries of strategic interest that are willing to work with the United States.

The United States is not paying for any of the security upgrades, the officials said.

Teams have finished assessing the vulnerability of U.S. airports to missile attacks, officials said. Security has been upgraded at the largest U.S. airports, which handle 85 percent of the nation's commercial air traffic, they said.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates there are 750,000 shoulder-fired missiles in the world. The portability, ease of use and availability on the black market have made these missiles -- manportable surface-to-air missiles, also known as MANPADs -- a security concern.

The Bush administration is trying to stem the proliferation of the missiles by encouraging other nations to better control their inventories and by reinstituting buyback programs in some high-risk countries.

There is no ground-based technology that prevents an attack with shoulder-fired missiles. However, the Department of Homeland Security is pushing research to see if a cost-effective technology can be placed on commercial aircraft.

The department is asking eight contractors to come up with detailed plans and prototypes for such a system by the end of the fiscal year. It has asked that $2 million be reprogrammed for this effort.

A department official said the anti-missile technology deployed on some military aircraft is too expensive and requires too much maintenance for use in commercial aviation.

Another expert agreed.

"The question is how much money do you have to spend because to defend against all threats, all the time with military-type systems is very expensive," said Andrew Koch of Jane's Defense Weekly.

News about the checks on overseas airports comes a day after the FBI issued a warning to security screeners about apparently everyday objects, from belt buckles to combs, that are really disguised weapons. The agency has issued to security personnel an 89-page catalog of items from walking stick knives to metal-edged playing cards.

The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday warned travelers to expect greater scrutiny of cameras, cell phones and other electronic devices because of evidence al Qaeda has experimented with those items to house stun guns or explosives.

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